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A WET FOURTH OF JULY, WITH A GOOD DEAL OF HUMAN NATURE IN IT
The first days of July were very hot and sultry; the hoeing was finished; haying was at hand. We young folks, however, were now chiefly interested in the Fourth of July celebration at the village, seven miles from the farm, and were laying our plans to go, all the previous day. In fact, the whole family intended to go.
If we were to get the farm chores done, breakfast eaten and reach the village by six o'clock, in time to see the procession of "fantastics" we would have to be astir by three in the morning. Addison proposed to harness old Sol and Nancy to the hay-rack, decorate it with green oak boughs, making a canopy over it, and all ride to town together, taking up six or eight of our neighbors, to swell the party.
Theodora and Ellen hailed this plan with delight, but Gram objected both because of the fact that the hay-rack had no springs, and also upon grounds of decorum.
"Why, people would think we were a part of the 'fantastics,'" the old lady exclaimed. "I will never ride in any such gipsy fashion!"
This vigorous declaration tabled the hay-cart scheme. But as we were milking that evening, Addison obtained the Old Squire's consent to harness Nancy into the horse-cart, and decorate it for us young folks; while our elders drove to the village with old Sol in the beach-wagon. Boughs were accordingly fetched and a canopy made over the cart and by nine we all retired, so as to secure as much sleep as possible before three A. M.
But the Pluvian powers forbade the excursion. The southern sky, indeed, had looked a trifle dark and wet, the previous evening. Raindrops on the roof waked us shortly before three. We hoped it was but a passing shower. At daylight, however, the rain was pouring profusely. Wealthy actually cried; Ellen scolded a little; Halstead made certain irreverent remarks; while Gram sought to inculcate resignation in the abstract.
It proved one of those profuse southerly rains, such as often occur in Maine during the summer season. We milked in the barn and put the cows out to pasture in the midst of the downpour, for it was a warm rain.
"No celebration to-day," remarked Addison; but the Old Squire thought that it would slacken by noon and perhaps clear.
All the morning it rained too hard even to go fishing. Addison went up to his room to read Audubon awhile. Halstead went out to the wagon-house and having appropriated an auger, draw-shave and hammer, took an umbrella and set off for the old cooper shop below the orchard. Seeing me standing in the wood-house door, he said, "You can go down to my shop, if you want to. I wouldn't invite Addison, but I will you."
I ran out to his umbrella, and we went down to the old shop. When we reached the door, Halstead remarked that I need not see the way he opened it; so I stepped around the corner for a moment, till he called to me. I then entered after him and stood around while he set to work on several odd-looking pieces of wheeled gear. Then with his permission, I kindled a little fire in the large old fireplace, and dried my clothes before it.
"I tell ye that's a cute place to roast sweet corn ears," Halstead remarked. "In the fall I have a fire here evenings and roast corn; I did last fall and you and I will this next fall. It's jolly fun, after the nights get cool; I would like to sleep down here, but the old gent wants me to sleep in the house; I made a bunk of shavings and set out to stay one night before my fire, but he came down and knocked at the door about ten o'clock. He said I had better go up to the house.
"The old gent is awful particular about a fellow being out after dark," Halstead continued. "I ain't used, myself, to being bossed round so, and treated as if I was a child that hadn't cut my teeth yet. I've seen something of the world and can take care of number one, anywheres. It ain't as if I was a little green chap. I've lived out among folks, till I came 'way back here. I suppose the old gent and all the rest of them think, that I don't know any more and must be looked after just like one of these little greenhorns round here. It's a great bore to me to be treated that way and I don't like it at all. It makes me mad sometimes. A fellow that has travelled and seen something, wants more liberty."
I could see that he was talking around to lead up to something he wished to tell me, and so said nothing.
"Now the other night," Halstead continued, "all I was going off for was to get some money of a fellow who owes me out at the Corners; I wanted to get it bad, for I wanted to pay you and the girls what I owe you. I knew you wanted it for the Fourth and I wanted to pay it; so I thought I would slip out to the Corners, and see this fellow and get it of him, for he had promised me I should have it that night. I felt ructious that I couldn't go, for of course a fellow wants to pay his honest debts, and it's kinder hard when he can't."
I mentally set this down as one of the things that are important, if true; it was pretty plain to me, however, that Halstead was hedging, and making up a story which he thought suited to my understanding. I did not like to hear him go on, and contrived to change the conversation.
Halstead was in one of his good moods that morning, and as he worked with the draw-shave, he cast knowing, proud glances first at the wheeled contrivance, then at me. I concluded that he wanted me to inquire about it and so asked what it was for.
"A wind-mill," said he. "It will be a buster, too! I'll show 'em a thing or two 'round here. I mean to run a lathe with it here at the shop and do wood turning. I'll turn banisters, rolling-pins, gingerbread creasers and all sorts of things. I can make lots of money off a lathe. I'm going to set the wind-mill up on a tall post at the corner of the shop here, and then have a pulley shaft clean across this whole side of it. Won't it just hum though!"
I grew considerably interested in the proposed wind-mill, as Halse explained it. He really had some ideas of a lathe, run by wind power, and went on for some time telling me of his plans, till Ellen called us to dinner.
It continued to rain till past two o'clock, when the clouds broke away and the sun came forth very hot and bright.
"Shall we go?" was now the question. "Will there be a celebration now the day is so far advanced?"
The Old Squire thought it hardly worth the while to set off, assuredly not in the bough-embowered cart. Gram and the girls therefore decided to give up going altogether, but we three boys at length harnessed old Sol into the express wagon and started; for we hoped to see the fireworks in the evening and perhaps the sack-race and wheelbarrow-race which had been set for afternoon.
The meadow brook was swollen high out its banks and flowed into the grass on both sides, and the wet road was full of puddles through which old Sol splashed prosaically on. There were very few teams on the road. Alfred Batchelder, the two Murch boys and Ned Wilbur overtook us, however, when we had nearly reached the village, all four riding on one seat of an old wagon. We found, too, that Thomas Edwards and Catherine had come to the village, in advance of us. Catherine came out from one of the stores to ask us whether Theodora and Ellen had come; she seemed much disappointed to learn that they had not, and that she was the only girl from our neighborhood who had ventured forth.
Despite the wet, a crowd of three or four hundred persons, mostly boys or young men, had collected in front of the Elm House, where they were popping off firecrackers and playing pranks. Zest was presently lent to these latter efforts, by the continuous explosion of half a bunch of crackers beneath the wagon seat of a young farmer who, with his sister, or some other young lady, was sitting in a wagon on the outskirts of the crowd, looking on. Both of them were smiling broadly. In the rear end of their wagon was a butter firkin and a number of packages. Some rogue lighted the crackers and tossed them directly beneath the wagon seat, and immediately they began to pop off. Their horse gave a bound; smoke and sparks flew, and after a moment the girl jumped clear of the wagon and landed nimbly on her feet two yards away! She looked very wild, indeed, and did not relish the joke; for an urchin in the crowd, attempting to follow it up by covertly dropping a lighted cracker near her feet, was instantly detected and received such a box on the ear as set him howling.
Meantime the youthful farmer had no small ado to quiet his nag. When the animal and the crackers had at length subsided into quiet, he began to look about for the girl. His nerves were not of the highly strung variety; he looked out for his horse first; he was not much excited, and smiled broadly when Angelina came forward to climb into the wagon again, but he was heard to remark in a slightly quickened tone. "By Gaul, 'f I could find out who throwed them firecrackers, I'd lick him, I would, I swan."
He gazed about over the crowd, with an inquiring eye, as one honestly on the lookout for accurate information; and although everybody had laughed uproariously, no one now claimed the honor of having started the fun.
Evidently a mischievous spirit possessed the crowd. In fact, when a great concourse of people has gathered in expectation of a good time, and has been balked of the fun, it is well to be wary and keep aloof. Something is pretty certain to happen, and somebody is likely to be made a victim of the general disappointment. In such a case the most prudent thing is to go quietly home.
While all stood laughing and gaping at young Agricola and his fair companion, another hubbub broke out. A cracker suddenly exploded in the outer pocket of a long linen duster, worn by a tall youth who at that moment had his mouth widely distended with laughter. He clapped his hand to his pocket, when another went off there. With that he whirled around, the lengthy skirts of the "duster" floating out in a circle amidst a wreath of blue powder smoke. Snap-fizz went another and another cracker, the sparks flying and an odor of burnt cloth beginning to pervade the air. The crowd, shouting in fresh glee, speedily drew out from the new victim and formed a ring about him.
"Enoch, you're all afire!" exclaimed one of his acquaintances. "Throw off yer duster." This was sound advice and would probably have been acted upon by "Enoch;" but some one else cried, "Down and roll over."
The adage advising all whose clothes take fire, to roll on the floor, or the ground, has become pretty firmly fixed in the public mind; and hearing it, Enoch at once threw himself down and rolled over and over in the road, to the accompaniment of a tremendous shout. The maneuver did not much improve matters; for a lot of crackers had been dropped into the duster pocket. These continued to pop off, in twos and threes; and the more alarmingly they popped, the more vigorously Enoch rolled! A more laughable spectacle, for the onlookers, can hardly be imagined. The tall fellow's arms and legs flew about in a wonderful manner; the smoke and sparks flew, too, and every time a cracker snapped, Enoch howled.
Somebody at length ran forward with a pailful of water that was set on the tavern piazza, and dashed it over him, and withal the road was still very muddy from the rain. When the water fell over him, he scrambled to his feet; the crackers had snapped themselves out. But oh, sorrows, what a fearfully singed and muddy object was Enoch! His own mother would have looked coldly on him; and the unsympathetic crowd screamed with delight.
But Enoch had arisen in a somber frame of mind; and it was at once apparent that something was going to be done about it, and that somebody must settle the account with him. He cast a rueful glance over his personal remnants, then a wrathy one at the laughter-shaken crowd, took a step forward and giving vent to certain emphatic remarks, declared, "The feller that did that has got to suffer!"
Thereupon a group of five or six boys, among them our Halstead and Alfred Batchelder, not being upheld, perhaps, by the courage of entire innocence, began to slink away and get behind others. In an instant Enoch was after them. They took to their heels around to the rear of the tavern, the crowd shouting, "Catch 'em! Give it to 'em! Go it, Enoch!"
There was a rush to see the denouement. Neither Addison, nor I, witnessed all which took place. The chase had led the principals far around to the rear of a stable and sheds. At length, we saw Halstead and Alfred on the roof of the latter, and heard cries of dismay and distress from others of the runaway party; Enoch was with them, evidently.
Alfred and Halse continued hastily to climb to the ridge-pole of the stable and then walked along on the roof of an ell, till they gained the higher roof of the tavern itself. Presently Enoch came back from the rear and espying the refugees aloft, began to stone them with vigor, till the proprietor came out and ordered all parties to the fracas to desist and leave the premises.
Addison and I now crossed the street and joined Thomas and Kate Edwards, who were standing on the platform of a store opposite, spectators at a distance of what had taken place. After a time Halse came to us, having made a circuit of several buildings from the rear of the Elm House. He had the generally rumpled appearance of a boy who has been roughly handled. Occasionally he nursed and rubbed certain spots upon his person.
"Did he hit ye?" inquired Thomas, good-humoredly.
"Yes, he did," muttered Halse. "The old long-legged loafer! I wish he had all burnt up!"
"Did you put the crackers in his pocket?" asked Catherine, laughing.
"No, I didn't," replied Halse. "But I know who did," he added, with a knowing nod. "And I know who lit the match, too."
"You seem to know quite a good deal about it," commented Catherine.
"He needn't have stoned me!" cried Halse. "He had no proof against me. But I'll pay him out."
"I guess you had better let Enoch alone," said Addison.
Meantime the sun had come out very hot; it was already five o'clock. Kate persuaded Thomas to carry her to visit an acquaintance of theirs, living somewhere on the outskirts of the village. We lingered about for a time, then some one of the crowd of boys proposed going up to the outlet of the lake, above the dam, to go in swimming. The heat rendered this proposal agreeable; and as many as fifty set off together, some intending to go into the water, others to sit in the shade and watch the swimmers. Enoch, minus his duster, with a number of his friends, was in the party, observing which Alfred and Halse kept at a respectful distance in the rear. Ned Wilbur and Willis and Ben Murch went along with Addison and me.
The distance up to the "swimming hole" was near half a mile; there was a pretty bit of white, sandy shore, shelving off from shoal into deep water. In a few minutes, twenty or thirty were splashing, wading and swimming out, some boldly, as good swimmers will, others timidly, or feigning to swim and taking good care not to get into water over their heads.
And all along shore the grass was dotted with small heaps, capped with white, representing each bather's temporarily discarded wearing apparel, beside which were set his holiday shoes or boots.
It is the common, unwritten code among boys on such occasions, that while in the water, each swimmer's clothes are to be held sacred from molestation, even by his sworn enemies; at least, that was the "law," as the writer understood it, in the year 1866. To meddle with another boy's clothes while he was in the water was deemed an outlaw act.
Alfred and Halse, however, who had approached in the rear, and observed Enoch's wardrobe lying unguarded on the shore, determined to redress their grievances by making a descent upon it, while he was in the pond. Ned and I, who were sitting under a large maple a little back from the stream, saw them peering about the heaps of clothes, like a couple of crows plotting larceny from a robin's nest. We had little idea what they were about to do, however, for they walked away, and it was not till ten minutes afterwards that we saw them again, this time with Alfred's horse and wagon, up in the road, a hundred yards or more from the water.
"Why, Alf's going home!" Ned exclaimed. "I came down with him and I must go back with him, unless I walk." "Don't go yet," I said. "You can ride back with us. We are going to stay till evening."
"All right, I will," replied Ned. "I don't like to go with Alf very well; he is always 'sassing' folks on the road.
"But they have stopped up there," Ned added. "Alf's got out and is coming down here. Perhaps it's to call me to go home. He is picking up stones. What suppose he is going to do?"
We watched him curiously. Halse sat in the wagon, holding the reins, but Alf was stealing down to the shore, and he seemed to have a stone as large as one's fist in each hand.
"You don't suppose he is going to stone Enoch and run?" queried Ned, in some excitement. "There'll be high jinks, if he does."
I thought that was the intention, and called out in a low tone to Addison, who was coming out of the water, a few rods off, to come to us. But before he had more than heard me, Alfred slipped down past an alder clump, to the spot where Enoch's clothes lay, and quickly tucking a stone into each of his boots, threw them off into deep water, then snatching up his pile of clothes, ran for the wagon.
They had the trick adroitly planned out, and he was not half a minute executing it. Before an outcry was more than raised and the alarm wafted out to Enoch, or his friends, Alfred and our Halstead were rattling off up the road at a great rate.
But when the fact really dawned upon the crowd of boys, there was a roar of indignant exclamations, and only a very few laughed this time. "After them!" was the first shout. "Catch them!" — and some said, "Drown 'em!"
Not many were in a condition to make pursuit, however. The perpetrators of the outrage easily escaped; they were a mile off, indeed, before the most of the swimmers were dressed.
Poor Enoch was now in bad straits. He and three or four others began diving for his boots, but failed to bring them up.
Addison was much disturbed. He gave Enoch his undershirt, and another boy endowed him with a pair of drawers. With these donations, they got him out of the bushes, and forming a close circle round him, escorted him barefoot and bareheaded to one of the village stores, where he was rigged up — on credit — so that he could go home. There was a great deal of joking, yet the prevalent feeling was one of indignation; and if the two tricksters had been caught that afternoon, they would have fared badly, and probably taken a ride on a rail. Altogether, it had been a bad day for Enoch; but for popular sympathy, he would not only have lost his "duster," but been obliged to scud home under bare poles.
At sunset we bought crackers and cheese for our supper. Ned and the two Murch boys were now of our party, but Thomas and Catherine had gone home. We were but slightly repaid for waiting till evening, however; only six rockets, five Roman candles and two "pin-wheels" were burned in the way of fireworks. It was very soon over, although we had been obliged to wait until a quarter to nine for the exhibition to begin. Boy-like, however, we would not have missed it for a great deal.
Then came the long ride homeward in the dark, for the night proved cloudy; but the events of the day furnished us a great deal to talk of, as old Sol plodded onward, — and there was more to follow.
We had gone about half way home, and were passing a partly wooded tract on the upper or west side of the highway, when Willis suddenly said, "What's that thing, hanging down from that tree over the road?"
"I don't see anything," replied Addison.
"I tell you there is!" muttered Willis, excitedly. "Hold on, Ad. Stop."
Addison pulled up.
"Yes, there is something there," Ned said.
I was sure, too, that I could see something different from the branches and leaves of the tree; there was a reflection as from white cloth, or human skin.
"It looks like a man hanging there," whispered Willis.
"Gracious! You don't suppose it is a man, hung, do ye?" Ned whispered.
The idea startled us.
"Pshaw!" said Addison. "I don't believe it is any such thing. May be something some one has lost in the road, and somebody else has found it and hung it up there, where it will be seen."
"Perhaps," said Willis, doubtfully.
"I'm going to drive along, anyway," continued Addison.
"No, don't. Hold on, Ad. Don't," whispered Ned, for the thing did have a curious appearance.
Addison persisted and slapped old Sol gently with the reins. The rest of us cringed down as low as we could, for we did not like the looks of the object, or the thought of passing close under it. But just as we had got under it, Addison said, "Whoa," and old Sol stopped short.
"Drive on, Ad, drive on," whispered Ned, nervously.
"No," said Addison. "I'm going to see what that is. Take the reins," and he gave them to me. "I can reach it by standing upon the seat."
Addison raised himself slowly, and finding that he could reach the object, began to feel it with his hand.
"Great Scott!" he exclaimed suddenly. "'Tis a man's stocking, on his foot!"
"Ah-h-h!" quavered Ned. "Let's get from under!" He grabbed spasmodically at the reins and gave a shake. Old Sol took a step, and Addison tumbled partly over Willis and Ben, who both gave a howl of nervous apprehension.
"Quit that!" cried Addison, angrily, to me. "Stop, I tell you. You hold that horse."
I pulled old Sol up short and he backed a little, at which Ned jumped out and ran on a few steps; Willis and Ben also slipped out behind.
"Hold still," said Addison to me. "Don't let the horse start and pitch me out."
With that he stood up again and began feeling the object. "'Tis a man's trouser leg, sure — and stocking — but there's something odd inside. Who's got a match?"
Ben had a few matches, with which he had been touching off firecrackers earlier in the day, and ventured up to the back of the wagon. Addison stood up again and struck one, while the rest of us stared as the match burned slowly.
"It is a stuffed man," cried Addison; "a scarecrow, I guess, stuffed with grass. But where have I seen those checkered pants before, to-day? — and, boys, here is a paper, pinned on to them higher up. Back the horse a little."
I backed a step, and Addison, striking another match, read aloud on the piece of paper, "THIS IS ENOCH."
"Oho!" cried Ned. "Alf and Halse did that!"
"Yes, these are Enoch's clothes, sure," said Addison. "There's his hat on a big pine knot for a head, with his pocket handkerchief tied round it for a face, and great daubs of wheel grease for mouth, eyes and nose."
"Well, that's a queer sort of joke!" remarked Willis.
"I'm glad they didn't carry Enoch's clothes clean home with them," said I.
"I was afraid they had," Addison remarked; "and I was thinking whether or not he could make it out as stealing, against them."
"Had we better take them down and send them back to him?" I asked.
"No, sir-ee," said Addison. "We will not meddle with them. Enoch may send the sheriff up here by morning. It would be a pretty go if the clothes were found in our possession. Let them hang right where they are, I say, and let's be going, too, before any one comes along and catches us here!"
We drove on accordingly, and reached home without further adventures. The house was dark; all had retired, except Theodora, who was sitting at her window looking out for us. She came down stairs quietly, lighted a lamp and had set on a lunch for us by the time we came in from the wagon-house. They had gathered three quarts of field strawberries that afternoon and had saved a quart for us. They were the first strawberries of the season. How good they did taste, hungry as we were that night, along with some big slices of Gram's new "mug bread" and butter, and a plentiful swig of lemonade, a pitcherful of which Theodora had also set aside for us.
"Doad!" cried Addison, giving her a pat on the shoulder. "You are the boss girl of this county!"
"Oh, I wanted to hear all the Fourth o' July news," said Theodora. "Now tell me. But don't talk so loud, or you will wake Gramp and Gram."
"The news, well, jingo, I don't know whether we ought to tell it all, or not; what think?" said Addison to me, doubtfully.
"Has Halse got home?" I asked.
"Yes, he came just before supper. He said he rode up with a fellow as far as the forks of the road," replied Theodora.
"Did he say why he left us and came home so early?" asked Addison.
"Yes; he said there was nothing going on, and he had got tired of loafing around."
Addison laughed; so did I.
"But I knew there was something behind it all," Theodora continued. "Now what was it?"
"Nothing — much," replied Addison, evasively.
"Oh, but there was," exclaimed Theodora. "Tell me."
"Nothing but the usual 'circus,' when Halse goes out anywhere," replied Addison wearily, yet still laughing a little.
"But tell me what it was," Theodora urged.
With a certain reluctance which boys always feel, to divulge circumstances that pertain mainly to boys and boys' affairs, we related to her the salient events of the afternoon, for it would have been a bad return for her kindness to us to have refused altogether, and we felt, too, that her motive was something more than mere curiosity.
Theodora was a fun-loving girl by nature; she laughed over the snap-cracker episodes, and laughed, indeed, at the Elm House roof exploit, and even could not help laughing at Alfred and Halse's final trick with Enoch's clothes.
"But that was mean," she kept saying. "What do you suppose he will do? Will he have them arrested?"
"No, I guess not," replied Addison. "I think it will pass as a joke. Enoch will probably get his clothes back, in a day or two, if not his boots."
"But he declared he would give Alf and Halse an awful licking the first time he meets them out anywheres," I said.
"Well, I shouldn't much blame him, I do say, if he did," observed Theodora, laughing again.
"I would if I were he," said Addison. "You see, they begun on Enoch in the first place."
Just then we heard a little creaking noise in the chamber stairway.
"Sh," whispered Theodora. "I believe Halse is there, on the stairs, listening."
"Well, listeners rarely hear much good of themselves," said Addison, loudly enough for him to hear it. We heard still another little creaking noise, this time higher up the stairs, as if he were tiptoeing back to his room.
"I am sorry if he overheard us," Theodora remarked in a low tone, as we got up to go to our rooms.
"I don't care," said Addison. "What could he expect any one to say of a mean thing like that?"
When I entered our room, Halse was in bed, and pretended to snore.
"Oh, that's too thin, Halse," said I. "We heard you on the stairs."
"You are a couple of tell-tales!" he exclaimed, hotly. "To come home and chatter out everything that happened, to the girls!"
There was some little force in the reproach, and I did not at once reply to it. "Tell-tale, tell-tale!" he kept calling out, tauntingly, as I was undressing.
"You just wait till Enoch gets hold of you!" I remarked, beginning to grow irritated.
"I'm not afraid of any of your Enochs!" cried Halse.
"What were you on the top of the Elm House for, then?" I asked, sarcastically. "I wouldn't like to be in your shoes the next time Enoch gets his eye on you."
"If he touches me, I'll fix him!" cried Halstead, wrathfully. "And I'll slap you, too, if you don't keep still," he added, giving me a kick under the bedspread, which I did not quite dare to resent, and so turned over to the wall and fell asleep.
Thus ended our first Fourth of July at the farm.
I must add a word here relative to Enoch's clothes, however. The effigy hung there over the road for two days; but word had been sent to Enoch, who lived in another town, and on the third day he made his appearance for the purpose of reclaiming his garments; but meantime, either that morning or the previous evening, the effigy was stolen, or at least captured and carried off. The latter offense was finally traced to a passing tin-peddler, who, when accused of it, declared that he had found the image lying in the road, and deemed the clothes old togs, fit only for paper rags and not worth advertising; he had therefore put them in his cart and driven on. He was subsequently shown to have sold the suit, not as paper rags; and when threatened with legal proceedings, he settled the matter on Enoch's own terms.
On the first day of the "Cattle Show," or County Fair, that fall, Enoch fell in with Alfred Batchelder, in the rear of the cattle sheds, and, to make use of a phrase common among fighting characters, "wiped up the ground with him" — not over clean ground, either — for a space of several minutes. Our Halstead steered clear of him, however, and so far as I know, never received his just deserts for his share in the transaction, — which may, perhaps, be said to lie in the line of a remark which Elder Witham was fond of making in his quaint sermon against the Universalists. "Justice," quoth the Elder, "certainly does not get done in this brief, imperfect life of ours. Many of the worst wrongs men do us go unredressed in spite of our best efforts to square accounts with them!"
I recollect, also, that as we had unharnessed old Sol in the wagon-house that night and led him out, we noticed a great light in the sky, away to the southward. It shone up high in the heavens, but was pale, as if a long distance off. I asked Addison what he thought it could be, and he said there must be a great fire somewhere in that direction. We thought no more about it at the time; but toward evening next day a rumor reached us, afterwards confirmed, that a great part of the city of Portland had burned, entailing a loss of nearly or quite twenty millions of dollars.
But along with all these distracting incidents of the Fourth of July, there was a bit of seriousness and worry that lingered in a back nook of my mind, connected with that funeral which the Old Squire and I had attended. I felt that there was something, some question concerning it, which I must solve, or settle, before I could feel right again. I had never seen a person lying dead before; I tried not to think about it and in part succeeded, when there were a good many other things going on, yet all the time I knew that it was there in my mind and must be thought about before long. When I was very tired and first shut my eyes, on lying down at night, I would see that man in his coffin so plainly that I would fairly jump in bed, and then have to turn over several times and begin talking with Halstead, somewhat to his annoyance, for without quite understanding it, I suppose, he yet perceived that it was not a genuine conversational effort.
During the days following the Fourth, this impression of death which had entered my mind began to assume more definite limits, and grew pertinent to my own status. I had heard that the average age of man was thirty-three years, and granting that I should reach that age, I could expect to live a little over twenty years more. That was a long time, to be sure, twenty years; but it would pass, and at the end of it I should have to die and look as that man looked, and be buried in the ground. The thought of it caused me to gasp suddenly, and filled me with a sense of terror and despair so awful that I could scarcely restrain myself from crying out. Most young people, I conjecture, pass through a similar mental experience, when the drear fact of death is first realized.
It continued to weigh heavily on my mind; and by way of relief from it, I followed Theodora out into the garden the next Sunday evening, and after quite an effort, opened the subject with her. There was no one else with whom I could have summoned resolution to broach that topic.
"Did you ever see anybody after they were dead?" I asked her.
She did not seem very much surprised at the question, since it was Sabbath eve. "Do you mean their body?" she inquired.
"Yes, their body," I replied.
"I have seen three," she said, at length.
"Didn't it make you feel strange?" I asked. "It did me. It is an awful thing to die and be put down into the ground, with all that earth on one."
"Oh, but they don't know it," said Theodora. "It is only their dead bodies; their spirits are far away."
"Yes," I said, "but I cannot help thinking of their bodies, and that it is them still, only they cannot wake up and speak."
"Oh, no, their spirits are far away," replied my gentle cousin, confidently.
"But that man, the one whose funeral Gramp and I went to, he died intoxicated. Where do you honestly think he is now?" I asked her.
"It's a dreadful thing to think of," replied Theodora, solemnly. "You know the Bible says, no drunkard can go to heaven."
"Then he will be burned forever and ever and ever, won't he?" I said.
"I suppose he will," she said, and taking out her handkerchief, she wiped her eyes sadly.
"Do you think it will be real fire and that it will smart just as it does when we burn our fingers?" I asked her.
"Maybe worse," Theodora replied, again wiping her eyes. "But sometimes I cannot believe that it will be all the time, night and day, year after year. Maybe it is wicked to hope it will not be, but I do want to think that they would stop sometimes. Universalists teach that nobody will be punished at all after they die; but Gram thinks they are not real Christians. Our folks all believe that the wicked will be punished forever, and the Bible does say so, I suppose. Grandmother says that all the great Bible scholars agree that the wicked will be punished."
"What does Ad think?" I asked, at length.
"I don't know. I'm afraid that he doesn't think at all," replied Theodora. "The thing I do not like in Cousin Addison is that he will never take a serious view of these important questions. The time he had the measles, he was very sick one day, and I said that I hoped that his mind was at peace. He looked at me as if he were a little frightened at first, for I suppose he thought that I thought that he was going to die, for I did begin in a sort of clumsy way. His head was swelled nearly as big again as it ought to have been, and he looked very queer about the eyes. 'O Doad!' he exclaimed, 'please do talk of things that you know something about.' But of course he felt peevish, being so sick."
"I suppose he did," said I. "But isn't it awful that everybody's got to die — and no getting away from it?"
"Yes, it does make any one feel dreadfully sad," Theodora assented. "But the good will be better off."
I did not gain much comfort from the conversation, however, and for years thereafter the thought of death filled me with the same choking sense of terror.